Science Magazine Uses Trans Sex Workers As Bait

Jul 16, 2014 • Papers/Rags, Sex Industry, Trans

Science magazines uses trans women sex workers as bait

Science magazine’s July 11, 2014 issue unleashed a firestorm on social media today. The issue, a special focused on ways to stay ahead of HIV and AIDS, prominently features two transgender women sex workers on its cover. While relevant to the focus of the issue — transwomen sex workers in Jakarta have been largely ignored by the Indonesian government in its efforts to combat HIV and AIDS — the focal point of the photo is incredibly problematic. Instead of showing viewers a humanizing glimpse into the lives of these women, the reader’s eye is drawn directly to their thighs, which are placed almost dead center on the cover. Indeed, their legs take up about half of the cover, and their heads have been cropped out of the picture.

Photographers who are sensitive to the privacy of their subjects use a number of techniques to capture a moment without revealing the identity of people involved. One of these techniques is the cropping of the face — most often before or after the nose, in order to convey some emotion through the mouth, but occasionally the face is cropped in its entirety.

This isn’t necessarily dehumanizing, but the context is extremely important. When you are dealing with members of a highly stigmatized population who are at risk of systemic violence and murder, it is unacceptable to commit the metaphoric violence of beheading for the purpose of staging. If this is somehow confusing to you, look up Gary Ridgeway.

Beyond the particulars related to the violence faced by sex workers, the fact that these women are trans means they are 28 percent more likely to experience physical violence than their gender-normative peers. Do you understand now?

But there is another message here, one illustrated by the way that the lightness of the legs lead the eye to the place where they meet the torso. A sex worker is never allowed to forget that the physical labor in which he or she engages is morally different than that of a farmer or a factory worker. Likewise, a transgender individual is never allowed to forget the cisgender fascination with what’s between his or her legs — what Katie Couric shamelessly termed “the genitalia question.”

In a single image, Science distills the subject of a feature story into the object of the viewer’s prejudice and fascination. This image isn’t about the demographic being discussed in the article within — it exists entirely for the viewer. Is that the correct approach to take when the feature in question is one about a serious health crisis?

Over the past decade, Science has featured photographs of humans on their covers a total of 42 times. With the exception of the May 18, 2007 issue, which showed a woman flirtatiously chewing on a pencil and staring straight into the camera, and that of June 10, 2005, which featured a nude woman with long blonde hair photographed from behind, the covers have worked in tandem with articles to depict the populations discussed in the magazine’s pages in a sensitive, human way.

dismembered bodies on Science covers

In ten years, almost every cover featuring people has included their faces — or at the very least their heads — with two notable exceptions. The July 15, 2011 issue featured on its cover only a hand making the victory sign with the Egyptian flag in the background. The feature story was, naturally, about education reforms in Egypt following the resignation of Hosni Mubarak.

The second is the February 22, 2013 cover, which featured three arms in the foreground, two belonging to a medical professional and the last to a woman being tested for HIV. The power of this image is in the background, where — sufficiently out of focus to ensure anonymity — another woman and a man look on. That cover also focused on HIV.

That the only cover to decapitate women in a decade of Science magazine covers is for an issue that specifically focuses on transwomen of color who are sex workers is disturbing. But the real escalation occurred only after one of the Science editors decided to respond to readers’ concerns.

In response to a comment that the current cover is not the correct response to campaigns to get more women in the magazine, Jim Austin, editor of the Science Careers section responded, “You realize they are transgender? Does it matter? That at least colors things, no?” He clarified that the fact that the women on the cover are transwomen “problemetizes [sic] responses in interesting ways,” adding that it would be “interesting to consider how those gazey males” drawn to such a cover “will feel when they find out” that their eyes were drawn to transwomen.

There it is — the suggestion that transwomen aren’t “real” women, so no harm, no foul. Further, it is not only acceptable to use victims of violence to bait the demographic that most often is responsible for that violence, but it is “interesting” to do so.

Moments after making these remarks, Austin disappeared from the social networking service. Four hours later, Marcia McNutt, the editor-in-chief of Science issued a public apology for the cover, tweeting, “From us at Science, we apologize to those offended by recent cover. Intent was to highlight solutions to HIV, and it badly missed the mark.”

An additional statement was issued on the Science site and the cover image was taken down, but six hours later, the apology disappeared and the image returned to the site. Both McNutt’s apology on Twitter and Austin’s insensitive remarks about transwomen remain on Twitter.

Header image by Steve Rhodes.

  • Andrew Storey

    No one, except those who are always looking to cry foul about something, would look at this picture and think it is implying decapitation – in fact one of the women’s head is visible to the nose. It is this type of political correctness policing that causes people to ignore these problems rather than seeking solutions. This piece of journalism is completely without context and an affront to those who actually are trying to solve problems rather than complaining about them.

    • Jake

      I think the writer is using “decapitation” in a figurative sense…

    • Anarcissie

      The cover does seem a bit gratuitously sexy, given the purported content of the story, does it not? Science isn’t supposed to be a lad mag. Creating a ‘firestorm’ in the intellectual sewer of the social media is hardly a worthwhile accomplishment for an allegedly serious magazine.

      • Andrew Storey

        I don’t think that Science was trying to stir up social media. It’s interesting to note that most of the readers of Science either subscribe as members of their parent organization (AAAS) or access the articles with university credentials. Social media hardly drives their readership. They don’t really sell a lot of news stand copies. I’m unclear who it is that they are actually baiting with a salacious cover. Except internet/social media trolls.

        I think it is a shame that people who are largely unfamiliar with the journal and its publishers and don’t bother to read the content of the articles themselves perpetuate these types of attacks and denigrate the integrity of the journal. This special edition contains a lot of really good work and commentary on the state of HIV/AIDS research that is being overshadowed by this discussion. All articles on this topic are made available for free here: http://www.sciencemag.org/site/special/hiv2014/

        • Anarcissie

          ‘ I’m unclear who it is that they are actually baiting with a salacious cover.’

          As am I. I know that male and transgender prostitutes are generally ignored and abandoned, but that’s a political and cultural problem, not a scientific one.

          • Andrew Storey

            I think delineating cultural/political and scientific problems is flawed. For a century, most drugs were developed for male populations. If they happen to help women, that was nice, too, but not the target. Culture extends into science. You see it today with many diseases that affect marginalized racial communities and part of that is indubitably due to the fact that talking about genetic diseases (e.g. sickle cell anemia) that have elevated prevalence in certain populations invokes PC policing over “eugenics” (from people who don’t understand the word) regardless of the content of the research. I don’t understand how such characterization by supposedly open-minded individuals can be factually construed as anything other than a part of the structural racism that pervades culture and directly involves science. There are researchers that have moved their programs away from such areas after attacks and (more commonly) others who shy away from such issues. Similarly, I would be surprised if Science gives this kind of attention to this ignored community in the future.

          • Anarcissie

            Indeed, but how does the sexy cover confront the problem?

          • Andrew Storey

            It doesn’t, the actual content of the journal addresses that. Save a handful of NG and TIME covers over the years, what cover ever addresses a problem in and of itself. Critics of the photo are too fixated on it to get to the article though, literally judging a book (magazine) by its cover. This was a technical article about sexual transmission of HIV/AIDS among transexual prostitutes. I’m unsure what type of cover critics would propose as appropriate if this one is not. Or perhaps they just don’t think this is front-page worthy news.

          • Anarcissie

            Well, I thought it was sort of odd, and I also thought it was sort of odd to make a big fuss about the picture. And then the editor’s twit ‘To me it defies the obvious stereotypes, problemetizes responses in interesting ways’ which takes us even further down the path to Mystery City. Maybe it’s the effect of Twitter on people’s brains — the pervasive feeling that you can unleash a one-liner and get away clean, a sort of drive-by bombing. But then they have to come back….

    • http://faultline.org Chris Clarke

      I expect you will shortly provide a sense of how you work in your life to solve problems rather than merely complaining about things, as you do here.

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  • Leisha Armijo

    I wonder if people are really getting mad because they were checking out the girls and then later realizing that the girls they used to be boys. I don’t see anything wrong at all, they are good looking people, not disgusting strung-out crack heads.

  • floyd schrodinger

    The photo shows what the male customers of these “women” see. The men aren’t looking into the faces of their victims. That’s the sad reality of prostitution.

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